Renewable energy is upon us, in part because if carbon emissions keep up the way they are, it’s possible that many of our favorite coastlines will be underwater before we know it. It’s possible we’ll need masks to breathe in 100 years. However, one thing that has kept renewable energy, like solar and wind power, from mass use is the fact that scientists hadn’t figured out a way to store it. How can we use solar power when the sun isn’t out, for instance?

A World-Altering Discovery Of How To Store Solar Power

A research team from Sweden seems to have found the answer that will create a breakthrough in the use of solar power, which is a molecule with the ability to store energy from the sun for 18 years. Last year, the team published their research with these findings in Energy and Environmental Science.

The molecule that can store solar power consists of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. When sunlight hits it, it is transformed into what is called an “energy-rich isomer.” That isomer contains the same atoms but with differnt bonds, and allows solar energy to be stored for a long, long time, 18 years to be exact. The scientists on the team say extracting the energy for use creates even more warmth than they had anticipated.

Understanding Solar Energy Storage

We may already kind of understand how energy in general can be stored, because we use batteries, which use stored energy. The molecule that can store the sun’s energy is kind of a like a battery then, though it has some key differences from the batteries we have come to know.

One is that Molecular Solar Thermal Energy Storage (MOST), discharges heat when activated through a catalyst, while batteries discharge electricity. Another is that batteries leak energy when not in use, while MOST does not; it only releases energy on demand.

The molecule is actually a specialized solar thermal fluid, and it is perfect for heating residences and commercial buildings, for instance. The liquid would capture the sunlight by way of a solar thermal collector as it sits on the roof of a building. The collector is a reflector with a pipe at its center. It tracks the path of the sun the way a satellite dish does. The sun rays are focused to a specific point on the pipe so it reaches and heats the liquid. Once it reaches the liquid, it is stored at room temperature. This conserves its energy.

The Logistics Of Using Stored Solar Energy

A catalyst is needed to control the release of the energy in the molecule, and the Swedish team says they have developed it. Otherwise, the energy would be used up all at once when enough heat is applied. The catalyst warms the liquid by only a specific amount, 63°C or 113°F. That way, the molecule can be used again. They are aiming to get that number a little higher.

At one point, a flammable chemical called toluene was part of the liquid in MOST, but that has now been eliminated. This is great news, because the molecule went from being potentially dangerous to much safer. Even more, it is an emissions-free process that works 365 days a year. Seeing as one of the pressing reasons to make the switch to renewable energy is the damage emissions do to the planet, this is huge. The only step left is to perfect the system so that it has optimal design and works smoothly. They’re thinking in 10 years, it will be commercially available.